Mastering the Art of Grammar and Punctuation: Learn These Rules to Improve Your Writing
Making sure your writing is technically accurate is an important part of the writing process. Whether you prefer to check as you go, or edit the details after your first draft, you’ll need a strong grasp of grammar and punctuation rules. But getting your head around the dos and don’ts can be tricky.
I’m a former English teacher and now a freelance copywriter, so I know a thing or two about punctuation and grammar!
I want to share with you my top tips for how to master punctuation and grammar, whether you’re writing for school, work, or just for your own pleasure. Accuracy in punctuation and grammar doesn’t need to be a huge source of stress if you take a little time to learn some basic rules.
Why proper punctuation and grammar are important
I’m sure you’ve seen company signs or even adverts that don’t use correct punctuation or grammar. For example, misplaced apostrophes or incorrect tenses are common mistakes. These can make the business come across as slapdash and unprofessional.
Using proper punctuation and grammar can show your attention to detail, which can be crucial if you’re producing business or academic writing. It creates a sense of trust in your audience, as it shows that you have really thought about what you’re writing.
But, beyond this, punctuation can be an important tool in clear communication. Consider any piece of writing where you need to create a list; simply throwing all the words on the page is likely to leave your reader confused.
Of course, punctuation can also dictate the actual meaning of a sentence. The most famous example is:
The second could have an ambiguous, somewhat sinister meaning!
With this in mind, it’s really important to use punctuation correctly. Learning some basic punctuation rules can help you communicate complex ideas coherently and achieve success with your writing.
Let’s run through some of the most common types of punctuation and how to make sure you’re using them correctly.
How to use punctuation and sentence structure correctly
Becoming aware of common grammar and punctuation mistakes, as well as the most important rules, is a great way to improve your writing skills. Here are a few you should be aware of both as you write your first draft, and when you revisit your piece of writing for editing.
Single sentences and complete sentences
The sentence is the building block of any writing. A very common mistake is writing incomplete sentences that don’t quite make grammatical sense. Avoiding this means understanding some of the basics of English grammar.
A complete sentence needs a main verb to be considered grammatically accurate. A main verb describes the action of the subject of the sentence. For example:
The main verb needs to make sense on its own. For example, ‘The dog running’ is not a complete sentence. ‘The dog is running’ is a complete sentence, because the continuous action of “running” needs another verb (“is”) to go with it.
If you want to add additional ideas to your sentence, you need to create a compound sentence or a complex sentence.
A compound sentence uses a coordinating conjunction (sometimes known as a connective) to join two full sentences together. Common coordinating conjunctions are “and,” “but,” “so,” and “or.” The joined sentences must be able to stand alone as complete sentences. For example:
You should also understand how to create complex sentences. In a complex sentence, the parts of the sentence are joined with a subordinating conjunction. Common subordinating conjunctions include “because,” “while,” “after,” and “although.” The subordinating conjunction makes the clause (part of the sentence) that comes after it dependent on the main clause of the sentence.
The key difference between a compound sentence and a complex sentence is that the different parts of the sentence (also known as “clauses”) do not all have to be able to stand alone. There’s a main clause, which contains a subject and main verb. Then there is at least one subordinate clause, the meaning of which depends on the main clause.
If you often run too many clauses together into a single sentence without using a main verb, a conjunction, or a semicolon, your writing may become difficult to understand.
Separating list items with commas or semicolons
When writing a list, it’s important to separate the items so the meaning is clear. You can do this with commas or semicolons. You should place a comma or semicolon in between each item. Before the final item, if you should use the word “and.”
Common practice is to use a comma before the “and” (otherwise known as an Oxford comma), but it is sometimes acceptable not to do this. You should check the style guide for your company or institution if there is one, to see what they prefer.
Commas are more usually used for shorter lists, for example:
Semicolons tend to be used for longer phrases in a list, for example:
Rules for using apostrophes and dashes in a piece of writing
One of the most prevalent punctuation mistakes out there is missing apostrophes. Apostrophes should be used in two situations:
- Firstly, where letters are missing from a word (also known as contraction). This could occur when two words are combined to make a shortened form, such as in “can’t” (made from “can” and “not”) or “I’ll” (made from “I” and “will”).
- Secondly, to indicate possession. A possessive noun (a person or item that owns something) should be followed by an apostrophe, either before the final “s” for singular nouns, or after it for plural. For example, “Mo’s car” or “the nuns’ choir.”
An exception to watch out for is “its” vs “it’s.” The former is the possessive, whereas the latter is the contraction (made from “it” and “is”).
Basic rules for capitalization and end-of-sentence punctuation
It’s important to separate your sentences using capital letters to begin each one, and the appropriate punctuation mark to end it. That could be a period, question mark, or exclamation mark, depending on the meaning of your sentence.
Declarative sentences (that make a statement) should end with a period. An interrogative sentence, or question, should end with a question mark. You can use an exclamation mark for an imperative (a command or order) or an exclamation (a statement of shock or surprise, or something you really want to emphasize). For example:
A capital letter should also be used to start a proper noun (the name or title of a person, place, or organization). Capital letters can also be used to indicate titles within your text. Otherwise, lowercase letters should be used in the rest of your sentences.
Using quotation marks
Another common punctuation mark problem is not knowing how to integrate quotations into your work. This is particularly important in academic writing and journalism, but could be useful any time you need to include someone else’s words in your writing.
You should use double quotation marks (“”) around text that comes from another source. If there are further quotations within this, then you should use single quotation marks. For example:
If you need to alter a quotation by adding more or clarifying information, you should use square brackets. For example:
This lets you adjust a quotation as needed, without causing confusion. It shows readers that you added the information in the brackets and it’s not part of the original source or quotation.
Eliminating common mistakes with English grammar and punctuation
These are just some of the common mistakes and rules it’s good to know about. As you can see, with a bit of practice, it’s possible to master English punctuation. However, even with these punctuation and grammar rules under your belt, you should still take your time to check your work thoroughly.
Using a digital punctuation checker can help. There are a number of online tools that can help you. But to really fine tune your punctuation and grammar, an AI software like Wordtune could be ideal. With Wordtune, you can paste in your text and ask it to rephrase and rewrite. The Editor’s Notes feature on the Wordtune editor can also highlight your punctuation mistakes and suggest adjustments.
This can include shortening and expanding your sentences, so you can make sure your sentence structure is accurate while developing your writing style.
Techniques for mastering English grammar and punctuation
Software like Wordtune can also show you how to adapt your tone of voice to your chosen style, transforming your work to be more casual or formal. This can work in conjunction with your grammatical and punctuation choices to make a real impact on your audience.
Why not try this exercise to stretch your skills? Write a short description of something familiar to you, like your bedroom or your local coffee shop. Now, imagine you’re writing about if for an advert for social media. You need to make the location sound exciting and fun. What kinds of punctuation and sentence structure would you use? Load your text into Wordtune and transform into a casual tone using the “casual” button to see if it matches what you’ve come up with.
Now, try writing up your description for an encyclopedia entry, using long, formal sentences to show your knowledge and authority. Practicing different modes of writing can help you put your punctuation and grammar skills into action to make an impact on your audience.
Looking at lots of existing examples can also show you how to master punctuation. Build your proficiency in the skill of punctuation by looking carefully at articles, essays, websites, and even cereal packets! Check out how other writers have used punctuation and grammar to convey their meanings.
Although punctuation and grammar can feel intimidating, it’s important to have a good grasp of both. Technically accurate writing is clearer and shows that you’ve paid attention to detail. And, once you’ve got the basics, you can use them to have an effect on your reader, like using questions to provoke thoughts and curiosity, creating pace with short sentences, or showing credibility with proper citations. Using online tools like Wordtune can help you take your writing to the next level.
This article was co-written with Wordtune. Wordtune didn’t write the whole piece. Instead, it contributed ideas, suggested rephrasing alternatives, maintained consistency in tone, and of course - made the process much more fun for the writer.